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The Covenant of Works, the Law and the Mosaic Covenant

With so much confusion floating around at present about the precise relationship between the Covenant of Works, the Law and the Mosaic Covenant, I thought that it might be helpful to set out what Geerhardus Vos wrote about some of the related issues in his Reformed Dogmatics and in Grace and Glory. In his section in Reformed Dogmatics on "The Covenant of Grace," Vos gave the following explanation about the relationship between the Covenant of Works, the Law and the Covenant of Grace:

The covenant with Israel served in an emphatic manner to recall the strict demands of the covenant of works. To that end, the law of the Ten Commandments was presented so emphatically and engraved deeply in stone. This law was not, as Cocceius meant, simply a form for the covenant of grace. It truly contained the content of the covenant of works. But—and one should certainly note this—it contains this content as made serviceable for a particular period of the covenant of grace. It therefore says, for example, “I am the Lord your God.” Therefore, it also contains expressions that had reference specifically to Israel, and thus are not totally applicable to us (e.g., “that it may be well with you in the land that the Lord your God gives you”). But also, beyond the Decalogue, there is reference to the law as a demand of the covenant of works (e.g., Lev 18:5; Deut 27:26; 2 Cor 3:7, 9). It is for this reason that in the last cited passage, Paul calls the ministry of Moses a ministry of condemnation. This simply shows how the demand of the law comes more to the fore in this dispensation of the covenant of grace. This ministry of the law had a twofold purpose: 1) It is a disciplinarian until Christ. 2) It serves to multiply sin, that is, both to lure sin out from its hidden inner recesses as well as to bring it to consciousness (cf. Gal 3:19; Rom 4:15; 5:13). Paul teaches expressly that the law did not appear here as an independent covenant of works in Gal 3:19ff. That the law is also not a summary of the covenant of grace appears from the absence of the demand of faith and of the doctrine of the atonement.1

He then went on to explain why it was that God included the "content of the covenant of works" in the covenant of grace:

When we say that it is a Covenant of Grace, then we must consider specifically the relationship of guilty man before God in this covenant. When one considers the Mediator of the Covenant, then naturally no grace is shown to Him. Considered in Christ, everything is a matter of carrying out the demands of the Covenant of Works according to God’s strict justice, though in another form. Grace never consists in God abandoning anything of His justice, taken in general. But He does in that He does not assert His justice against the same person against whom He could assert it. God shows grace to us when He demands from Christ what He can demand from us. Considered in Christ, everything is strict justice; considered in us, everything is free grace.2

Picking up on the significance of Christ's relationship to the Law in the Covenant of Grace as our Mediator, Vos noted:

The Son, who as a divine Person stood above the law, placed Himself in His assumed nature under the law, that is to say, not only under the natural relationship under which man stands toward God, but under the relationship of the covenant of works, so that by active obedience He might merit eternal life. Considered in this light, the work of Christ was a fulfillment of what Adam had not fulfilled, a carrying out of the demand of the covenant of works.3

After setting out the relationship between the Covenant of Works, the Law and the Covenant of Grace (with a view to both the sinful parties within the Covenant of Grace and the sinless representative Mediator who came to fulfill its legal demands), Vos went on to explain the perversions of it by unbelieving Israel. This perversion, he suggested, was specifically seen in Israel's constant desire to make the Mosaic Covenant a "self-willed covenant of works." He wrote:

The covenant with Israel had a ceremonial and a typical ministry, fixed in its details. That was also already so in part for the earlier administration of the covenant of grace. But to the degree that it now came about, that ceremonial ministry was something new. A formal gospel preaching was offered continually by symbols and types. A priestly class came into existence. Earlier, every father of a family was a priest. Now, particular persons are separated and consecrated for this function. One must consider all these types and symbols from two points of view: 1) as demands of God on the people; 2) as a proclamation of God to the people. God had appointed them to serve in both respects. But the Jews overlooked the latter aspect more and more, and made the types and symbols exclusively serve the former purpose. That is to say, they used them only as additions to a self-willed covenant of works, and misunderstood the ministering significance they had for the covenant of grace. So the opinion arose that righteousness had to be obtained by keeping that law in the broadest sense of the word, including the ceremonial law. And by this misuse, the covenant of grace of Sinai was in fact made into a Hagarite covenant, a covenant giving birth to servitude, as Paul describes it in Gal 4:24. There he has in view not the covenant as it should be, but as it could easily become through misuse.4

Vos also suggested that the prominent gracious nature of the Abrahamic Covenant in contrast with the evident legal demands of the covenant of works so prominent in the Mosaic Covenant served as a stumbling-block to unbelieving Israel:

In the patriarchal era, the gracious character of the covenant was more obvious (cf. Gal 3:18). Precisely because Israel was once more deliberately reminded of the demand of the covenant of works, there existed the possibility of misunderstanding, as if this was the way to salvation. And in fact, the Israel of a later era fell into this error.5

Finally, in his sermon "The More Excellent Ministry," Vos found in the words of 2 Cor. 3:18 (and in the illustration of the veiled glory that was pass away from Moses' face) an explanation for why Israel misinterpreted the Law in the Mosaic Covenant; and, thereby, why Israel was ensnared by their desire to turn the Mosaic Covenant into a "self-willed covenant of works." He explained:

The chief point of ignorance of the people related to the eclipse and abrogation their institutions would suffer. But the symbolism permits of being generalized, so as to include all the limitations of self-knowledge and self-understanding under which the Old Covenant labored. As a matter of fact Paul immediately extends it to Israel's entire reading of the Law, that is, to Israel's self-interpretation and Scripture-interpretation on a large scale. Ignorance as to the end would easily produce ignorance or imperfect understanding with reference to the whole order of things under which the people were living. Everything temporal and provisional, especially if it does not know itself as such, is apt to wear a veil. It often lacks the faculty of discriminating between what is higher and lower in its composition. Things that are ends and things that are mere means to an end are not always clearly separated. Every preparatory stage in the history of redemption can fully understand itself only in the light of that which fulfills it. The veil of the Old Testament is only lifted in Christ. The Christian standpoint alone furnishes the necessary perspective for apprehending its place and function in the organism of the whole. So it came about that the Mosaic Covenant moved through the ages a mystery to itself and to its servants. According to Paul this tragical process reached its climax when Israel came face to face with him who alone could interpret Israel to itself.6

1. Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2013) vol. 2, pp. 76–77.

2. Ibid., p. 7

3. Ibid., p. 51.

4. Ibid., p. 77

5. Ibid., p. 5

6. An excerpt from "The More Excellent Ministry," in Grace and Glory (1903) p. 51-52

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